From the court to the race track
Brad Daugherty patrolled the lane as an All-American center at North Carolina and then as a five-time All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He never forgot his childhood love of racing, though, and now he will share that passion with a wide audience as the newest addition to ESPN’s crew of NASCAR broadcasters.
Daugherty arrived at North Carolina as a 16-year-old freshman in 1982, just after Michael Jordan hit the jump shot that propelled the Tar Heels to Dean Smith’s first NCAA title. Daugherty played two seasons alongside Jordan.
“Michael was an outstanding one-on-one basketball player and he had a lot of talent and was a super player when we played pickup basketball,” Daugherty recalls. “But a lot of guys had a chance to expose the guy who was guarding them in pickup basketball. You knew that he was a better player than most of the guys there – you could see that – but not at that level (that he achieved in the NBA). I mean, that was unbelievable. There was no one outside of maybe Coach Smith who could see that. I know that Mike Krzyzewski said that he and Len Bias were two of the best players he ever coached against. Guys like that may have been able to see it, but there was no way that any other player could see the future for Michael Jordan at that point in time. You’d never think that he would become, probably, the greatest player to ever play.”
The Tar Heels twice made it to the Elite Eight and on two other occasions made it to the Sweet 16 but did not win a championship during Daugherty’s career.
“It is so difficult to do,” Daugherty says of capturing that elusive NCAA title. “We had some weird things happen injury-wise. My whole four years, there was always some odd thing that would happen. My sophomore year we were a really good basketball team and Kenny Smith, who was a freshman, broke his wrist. Steve Hale broke his collarbone – injury after injury after injury. We found out how fragile our existence was as a basketball team.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Daugherty with the first overall pick in the 1986 draft, and he made a smooth transition to the NBA game, averaging 15.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg and earning a spot on the All-Rookie Team.
“I give all of that credit to Coach Smith and that’s why I say that his impression upon my life was just incredible,” Daugherty tells of how he was able to so quickly adapt to both college and pro basketball. “He took me and was almost like a father to me because I was so young. There were so many things that I had to make adjustments to, not only athletically but socially. He just spent a lot of time helping me hone my skills as a basketball player and as an individual. He prepared me throughout my four years there to be able to take that next step and do it seamlessly.”
Daugherty’s coach in Cleveland, Lenny Wilkens, eventually broke the record for most NBA coaching wins; Smith held the NCAA career wins record until Bobby Knight recently passed him.
“Coach Smith was more of a mentor and really worked hard on implementing life lessons into the game of basketball,” Daugherty recalls. “It was a tremendous learning experience being around Coach Smith and he made indelible impressions upon each of us because of his ability to really take (lessons) from the game of basketball and help you grow as a person. That impact was everlasting. Lenny Wilkens is just a classy guy. The similarity between he and Coach Smith was the manner with which they approached the game. They both approached the game with a high level of integrity and sportsmanship. They wanted to win, but they wanted to do it fairly and in a just manner. They wanted to compete above board at all times. That is the quality that is similar. The difference is that Coach Smith could be really fiery, not in the sense of a Bobby Knight or Mike Krzyzewski with the profanity laced tirades – he wasn’t that kind of guy – but he was very competitive and very fiery and challenging his guys to be their best. Lenny Wilkens was very strategic, but he also was more apt to take a guy who was willing to do things himself and give that guy an opportunity to flourish. If you didn’t bring your best product to the table, then he would just move on. So that was the difference. Both very effective, but both different.”
Daugherty’s teammates Ron Harper and John Williams joined him on the All-Rookie Team as Cavs’ GM Wayne Embry assembled a young nucleus that Magic Johnson later predicted would become the “team of the 90s.” Another rookie, Mark Price, did not receive much playing time in 1986-87, but would soon become a key piece in the Cavs’ resurgence. The next season, Embry pulled off a multi-player trade with Phoenix – the key element being the exchange of point guard Kevin Johnson for power forward Larry Nance. That move both shored up the frontcourt and paved the way for Price to become the starting point guard. Daugherty and Price became one of the deadliest pick-and-roll combinations in the league.
“They were the best in the business,” declares Johnny Bach, one of Phil Jackson’s assistant coaches during the Chicago Bulls’ first threepeat. “Cleveland was the best in the business because of Price; he could get across that screen and make that pass. He actually probably shortened his career because he used to love to make the change (change of direction move) in between the screen and the defender who came up. He was knocked down a lot of times.”
That extra contact happened because Price did not simply use the screen to get a step on his defender to shoot an open three-pointer or make a pass to a big man who now had a mismatch down low.
“He dove through,” Bach explains. “In other words, he would change direction and split the defenders. Split was an invitation to disaster because the big guys consider that an insult and he (Price) has to go down. Well, he went down a lot. Coach would say, ‘Explain to me how he got through there.’ So next time or next game, he wasn’t going to get through. He’s going to be knocked down.”
“Splitting the double-team, obviously you had to have a good pick,” Daugherty says with a chuckle. “Mark was obviously a tremendous ballhandler and in order to get through the double-team you just have to have a great angle and a great pick. Your big guy has to set the pick and hold the screen and give the guy time to get through. A lot of times when you run the pick-and-roll, your forward or your center is looking to roll immediately because after you set the screen you are wide open. It’s hard sometimes to go over to that point guard and really hold on to that screen because you know that as soon as you roll that you have a chance for a shot. I think that the number one key is making sure that the guard doesn’t move until the big guy sets the screen and once the screen is set in place that the big guy does not move until the guard comes off of his hip. It is easy to split it that way because as the big guy sets the screen the big guy guarding him – the other center or forward – has to pick up the point guard. Usually that big guy will drop off because he knows that the point guard is quicker than he is. That creates a gap and Mark was just really good at cutting through that gap.”
Daugherty is not convinced that Price’s ability to split the double-team led to him getting injured.
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” Daugherty says. “In the era that we played in, you could still use your hands and take people to the ground and most times that guards drove to the basket they got popped pretty good. I don’t necessarily think that it was in retaliation for Mark embarrassing someone... When little guys went to the basket they were going to get hit, just because the rules allowed for that.”
Jordan’s Bulls were the main stumbling block that prevented the Cavs from becoming “the team of the 90s,” eliminating them from the playoffs in 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993.
“Michael, by the time I got to the pro game when he had already been there for a couple of years, had started to blossom and mature,” Daugherty remembers. “He had changed the dynamic of the game somewhat from the generation before when they really tried to have the post play and the inside-out game. Phil Jackson was innovative enough to come in and make he and Scottie Pippen the primary ballhandlers for that basketball team. His first couple years he was not a very good jump-shooter, but he got better as a jump-shooter and that just made him impossible to guard. He could just take his game to such levels. It was fun playing against him. He was a heck of a player.”
Daugherty’s best NBA season was probably 1991-92, when he averaged 21.5 ppg and 10.4 rpg, earned an All-NBA 3rd Team selection and led the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals. Daugherty put together three straight 20-10 seasons before a 1994 back injury ended his career. He averaged 19.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg in eight years.
Daugherty is well prepared for his NASCAR assignment with ESPN. He already has on-air experience as a basketball commentator for various outlets and his roots in racing are very deep.
“Growing up as a kid, my dad was a race fan,” Daugherty explains. “I had uncles who were race fans. I watched a lot of races with my dad. As I grew up, one of my best buddies was Robert Pressley, whose dad is a legendary short track racer throughout the Southeast… I’ve done some stuff with a couple of NASCAR boards – I’ve been on the Rules and Competition Committee and I’ve just been in and out of the sport doing a lot of different things with NASCAR over the years.”
Daugherty co-founded a late model stock race team in the late 1980s with Robert Pressley, who drove that team’s car to back to back Mid-Atlantic Region championships. Daugherty’s experience as a Busch Team owner influenced his perspective on the sport.
“The racing environment is such a fickle environment. When you have someone who is just truly dominant – say like Jimmie Johnson, who is just a tremendous racer and has the best of the best equipment – those people get on rolls when everything is going right and they’re not having any problems and they’re going to win. But for the smaller guys, the independent guys who go out and bust their butts and they don’t get on the rolls and they have the little problems that leak into every team and they can’t overcome those little problems because they don’t have the support that they need, it can be a catastrophic day because of small things. There is a huge gap there and I’m all for the little guy. Hopefully we are going to get to do a lot of diving into topics covering those guys who are there working just as hard as the guys on the mega teams but maybe don’t get the attention.”
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com